California Dreaming

SoCal has never been better for spa lovers, as Cal-a-Vie turns 30 fabulously, and the surfsavvy new Ranch at Laguna Beach makes a splash.

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA MAY be known as the backdrop for reality TV shows and Destination Disneyland, but it’s also home to playgrounds of an entirely different ilk. Less than 50 miles apart, Cal-a-Vie — an internationally renowned luxury health spa now celebrating its 30th anniversary — and Orange County’s hip, newly unveiled Ranch at Laguna Beach serve up two distinctly different slices of SoCal spa style.

Owned by Houston power couple Terri and John Havens and tucked into the lush, lavender-rich hills of Vista in northern San Diego County, Cal-a-Vie (cal-a-vie.com) gives guests permission to step away from the crazy-busy, the devices, the news — and into a veritable postcard that feels far away and otherworldly, for at least three days. Thanks to architectural wonders — like its centuries-old stone Meditation Center shipped from Dijon and reconstructed on-property — and European antiques, it has the footprint of a French village. Of its 32 Mediterranean-style villas, two have a television, and newspapers do not land on doorsteps daily; only in common areas can guests glean what’s going on outside the spa’s pristine and private 200 acres, which include vineyards that yield red wine for “therapeutic” tasting.

It’s a good sign when a trip begins with easy packing: workout clothes, SPF and a good book. No fancy outfits or accessories needed, unless it’s a Fitbit. And things only get simpler upon crossing the threshold. Like a health and wellness reboot camp for the super-successful and often supremely stressed, the spa shifts the focus from any worries from home. There’s very little decision-making after day one, when a scheduling guru presents options for meal plans, fitness activities and spa treatments. (Guests also have the option to be weighed and measured upon arrival and departure.)

Every day thereafter, each spa-goer is placed on a path for a one-of-a-kind experience that can be modified at any given moment. Scheduled for spin, but prefer to try a Brazilian booty class? No problemo: Go Brazil! Consuming 1,800 calories per day, but want 1,500 or 2,100? A quick word with any waiter ensures the change will take effect immediately. Plus, there’s take-home value in seeing exactly what a specific number of calories looks like. Executive Chef Curtis Cooke, by way of Lake Austin Spa Resort, uses fresh ingredients from local farms — plus organic herbs and veggies from the garden steps from his kitchen — and partners with on-site nutritionist May Tom to answer questions about the menus.

Specially prepared dishes with clients' food needs and calorie count in mind.

Specially prepared dishes with clients’ food needs and calorie count in mind.

To complement the cuisine, Cal-a-Vie’s extensive fitness program is a standout with daily sunrise hikes through hillside trails and more than 100 classes like TRX, MELT Method and LaBlast dance. The intimate classes feel more like a personal training session, and it’s possible to pack in as many as four or five a day.

Yoga is one of many fitness classes available at the resort.

Yoga is one of many fitness classes available at the resort.

Extracurricular activities like guided meditation and chakra bracelet- making ensure mind and spirit do not miss out on the wellness experience, while relaxing spa and salon treatments (massage, facial, reflexology, acupuncture and more) are the icing on the cake. Every hour is different, and 72 of them are not enough in the highly tailored environment with a staff-to-guest ratio of five-to-one. Guests leave as higher functioning versions of themselves, programmed with tools to carry into everyday life — and simply wanting more. (That explains why 70 percent of the spa biz is repeat!)

A mod bathroom with a view at the Ranch at Laguna Beach.

A mod bathroom with a view at the Ranch at Laguna Beach.

A three-night “La Petite” stay, made for Sunday arrival and Wednesday departure, runs $4,550 per person. It includes three meals and two snacks a day, single accommodations with a king bed, six spa treatments, unlimited fitness classes, nutrition lectures, a cooking lesson and transportation between the spa and San Diego International Airport. Bonus: New friendships with fellow guests — often interesting knowledge-seekers — are unexpected extras. In the vein of more, Cal-a-Vie offers longer stays with more amenities because, after all, anything is possible. Speaking of possibility, the new Ranch at Laguna Beach (theranchlb.com) serves it up on a golden Orange County platter. Originally built in 1962, the re-decked 97-room resort sits quietly between two canyons — 350 yards from Aliso Beach. Home to the longtime community gem Ben Brown’s Golf Course, a sand volleyball court, the Ranch’s brand-new additions include Harvest restaurant and the 3,000-square-foot indoor-outdoor Sycamore Spa, which faces the pool. That means hiking, biking, beach time, tee time, California cuisine and treatments like a stone-and-shell massage are all close.

Sitting on the first tee and adjacent to Harvest, the patio is made for languid lunches and happy hours like weekly Thirsty Thursdays with local breweries and live music. At the center of the property, the swimming pool — dubbed the “Pond” — is both a buzzy social spot with a full-service tiki bar, and a relaxation zone for 45 minutes of gentle flow yoga on weekend mornings. Several guest-room patios, each outfitted with a pair of rocking chairs, have a pool view. Inside the rooms and two-bedroom cottages, it’s equal parts coastal-chic and rustic — with a hint of cozy Round Top charm. (Interior designer Laurie Alter, who owns Tuvalu Home, frequents Antique Week halfway between Houston and Austin, so Texans will feel right at home.) Think sloping, white-wood ceilings with burnished chandeliers and nautical touches. Nightly rates start at $350, and change seasonally.

Resort's 97 acres includes the longtime community gem Ben Brown's golf course.

Resort’s 97 acres includes the longtime community gem Ben Brown’s golf course.

For anyone (kids, too) wanting to help their handicap, golf pro Ryan Sheffer will observe, coach and demo through nine holes before following up with a detailed private tutorial. But for explorers, there are dozens of adventures for the taking, beyond the boutique hotel’s 87 acres. Topping the list: Laguna Beach is surf central, and stand-up paddle-boarding is popular, too. So hit the water! The Ranch will facilitate a private lesson with seasoned Hobie pro Byron Kurt, who gives clear instruction with a good dose of patience. Tip: Before venturing off-property, stop by Ben’s Pantry — right off the Harvest patio — for a homemade granola bar (or two). Take a chocolate peanut butter or white chocolate cranberry bar for the road.

Art galleries and charming shops of every persuasion are prolific, but not necessarily walk-able. If the free open-air trolley isn’t running, drive or Uber. Keep an eye out for local merch like luxurious Ruby Mint beach towels and Laguna Salt Co. salt and hit laid-back boutiques like The Shop, Twig and Thalia Surf Shop. On the way back to the Ranch, pop into Coyote Grill, an oceanside Baja-style Mexican joint with a local vibe and a view. What any self-respecting Houstonian orders without hesitation: the calamari taco plate and a Cadillac “Caddie” margarita worth its salt, thanks to the house-made sweet-and-sour mix and a Grand Marnier topper.

It’s a choose-your-own adventure kind of place, whether R&R or a whirl of activity appeals, but the one constant is the glory of Mother Nature and breezy temps that make Houston heat and humidity feel a million miles away.